Thursday July 07, 2022

Deadly floods

March 22, 2021

On February 7, a Himalayan glacier broke and caused a flash flood in the North Indian state of Uttarakhand. The avalanche smashed two hydroelectric dam projects and killed more than 200 people. A total of 205 people were reported missing in the disaster, but so far only 74 bodies and 34 separate body parts have been recovered from the debris. Local authorities have declared those still unaccounted for as ‘presumed dead’ and initiated the process of issuing death certificates for them.

Environmentalists who have been studying Himalayan glaciers for decades have linked this deadly disaster, like many others before it, to climate change, adding weight to the growing calls for aggressive climate action in the region.

Attributing the blame for the flash flood solely or mainly to the ongoing climate crisis, however, risks obfuscating the failure of national and international agencies involved in construction projects in the region to act on the lessons learned from past disasters.

Less than 10 years ago, in 2013, flash floods left more than 5,700 people dead in Uttarakhand. Back then, experts quickly drew links between the disaster and the numerous hydropower construction projects in the high mountain valleys in Uttarakhand, arguing that these projects had exacerbated the intensity of the floods. “The disaster is a costly wake-up call,” Peter Bosshard, the policy director at International Rivers, said in the aftermath of that deadly flood. “It shows that nature will strike back if we disregard the ecological limits of fragile regions like the Himalayas through reckless dam building and other infrastructure development.”

After the 2013 flash flood, the Supreme Court of India also mandated a national panel of experts to investigate the policy failures responsible for the disaster. After conducting an investigation, the panel called for hydropower development in this “disaster-prone” region to cease, arguing that it significantly amplifies the damages caused by natural disasters. It also asked for the installation of a flood warning system. Later, two Supreme Court justices noted that they “are very much concerned about the mushrooming of a large number of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand […] The cumulative impact of those project components like dams, tunnels, blasting, muck disposal, mining, deforestation, etc. on the ecosystem has yet to be scientifically examined.”

Indian governmental agencies, however, refused to heed these warnings and continued their efforts to build dams on Himalayan rivers. Today, there are plans to build over two dozen medium and large hydropower projects in Uttarakhand alone. Dozens more are planned in other parts of the Indian Himalayas.

Environmentalists argue that the construction of the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project, one of the two damaged by the February 7 flash flood, likely increased the damage caused by the disaster. This dam was being built by India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), with the financial backing of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Both the NTPC and ADB were undoubtedly aware of the warnings environmental groups and other agencies have been issuing about hydropower development in the area since at least 2013. Their apparent decision to ignore these warnings cost the lives of hundreds of people working on the project site on the fateful morning of February 7. Had it not been a Sunday, the number of fatalities on the site would have been significantly higher.

The second project affected by last month’s flash flood, the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project, was not merely damaged but completely swept away by the violent surge. And the disaster did not hit that construction without warning, either.

The Rishiganga project site was struck by a cloudburst, floods and landslides several times between 2008-2016. None of these incidents led to the project’s suspension. In the summer of 2019, the residents of Raini village, world renowned for the role they played in the Chipko (Hug the Trees) movement of the 1970s, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Uttarakhand High Court, calling on the district magistrate of Chamoli and the state government to review the environmental and social impact of the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project site. The PIL also did not lead to any constructive action.

Those behind the hydropower projects in the Indian Himalayas long defended their efforts against criticism from environmentalists by arguing that these hydropower plants would reduce India’s harmful emissions and the detrimental effects of climate change on the local population. Indeed, the construction of hydroelectric dams in the Himalayan river valleys is part of a national plan to cut emissions linked to the energy sector. If and when these plans are fully realised, the disaster-prone Indian Himalayas will have one dam every 32 kilometres.

Excerpted: ‘Hydropower projects are wreaking havoc in the Himalayas’